Central Asian Uighurs Caught Between Two Fires

Transitions Online, 11 January 2017

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By Ky Krauthamer — The chairman of Kyrgyzstan’s Uighur council of elders, Alisher Nasrakhunov, says the situation in Xinjiang – where hundreds of Uighurs have reportedly died in clashes with Chinese forces in the past few years – is of concern to the community.

“But we are not in the position to make assessments of what is taking place in China,” he recently told Al Jazeera. “Every country has its own policy on certain issues. That is why we think that we cannot evaluate these processes from outside.”

Turkey’s identification of Uighurs as the likely planners of the deadly New Year’s attack on an Istanbul nightclub shone more unwelcome light on the predominantly Muslim people whose homeland lies in far western China, bordering Central Asia.

Kyrgyzstani authorities also blamed Syria-based Uighur radicals for a suicide bombing at the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek in August.

Turkey believes those responsible for that attack are hiding in Istanbul, according to an announcement made at a meeting of the Kyrgyzstani and Chinese ambassadors to Turkey, 24.kg reports today.

Uighurs speak a Turkic language related to Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and other Central Asian tongues and have close historic ties with the region, where around half a million Uighurs live, Al Jazeera says. Beijing accuses them of terrorism in pursuit of their aim of greater autonomy, although pressure groups have said there is no convincing evidence of a cohesive military force opposed to Chinese rule, Reuters reported in 2015.

  • China’s President Xi Jinping and his Kyrgyz counterpart Almazbek Atambaev pledged cooperation to combat the banned Uighur East Turkistan Islamic Movement during a meeting in Beijing last week, Akipress reported, citing Xinhua.
  • Beijing is engaged in “extensive and growing efforts to stifle [Uighur dissidents] abroad,” from Australia to Europe and North America, Reuters alleged in 2015.
  • Kazakhstan and to a lesser extent Kyrgyzstan have used their tight control over domestic Uighurs as a negotiating tool in talks with China on borders and trade, Nicolas De Pedro of the Barcelona Center for International Affairs told Al Jazeera.